Seductively eerie and serious, “Under the Skin” is terrific sci-fi that stimulates the intellect but perhaps with little interest for easily bored or frustrated movie goers.
Director Jonathan Glazer (“Sexy Beast,” “Birth”) has crafted a stunning masterpiece of existential science fiction that journeys to the heart of what it means to be human, extraterrestrial or something in between. A voluptuous woman of unknown origin (Scarlett Johansson) combs the highways in search of isolated or forsaken men, luring a succession of lost souls into an otherworldly lair. They are seduced, stripped of their humanity, and never heard from again.
Based on the novel by Michel Faber (The Crimson Petal and the White), “Under the Skin” examines human experience from the perspective of an unforgettable heroine who grows too comfortable in her borrowed skin, until she is abducted into humanity with devastating results. For Glazer, who also co-wrote the screenplay, it’s a project that was long on his mind. Faber’s otherworldly novel told of a female alien named Isserley who canvasses the Scottish Highlands in a tricked out vehicle, abducting rugged male hitchhikers and harvesting their muscle, a delicacy on her native planet for the intergalactic corporation that employs her.
But many of the more specific details from the novel never made it to the film version after its long gestation period. “I really connected with the idea of looking at the world through alien eyes,” Glazer says. “That was the spark.”
Producer James Wilson (“Sexy Beast, ”Dancer In the Dark,” “The Full Monty”) describes the central journey of the film as one in which the alien life form protagonist becomes infected with a sense of identity after inhabiting a synthetic human body and experiencing a new world and its inhabitants through human eyes. The focus is on self, the central essence of what it means to be human. The director’s viewpoint is singular, interested in the idea of point of view, of re-seeing ourselves through the eyes of another. The process compares to the enjoyment of watching a nature documentary about animals. It’s pleasantly suited to the medium of cinema, because point of view is all about looking and hearing.
After reading the book only once back when he was still working on a previous feature, Glazer composed an initial draft of the screenplay that was more or less faithful to the novel. For a subsequent draft he preserved the central character and Scottish setting, but took serious liberties with Isserley’s treatment of her victims. In the novel, the alien protagonist lures hitchhikers to a farm, where they are caged, fattened up with potatoes, mined for their muscle fibers, and ultimately released from captivity. In the movie, the humanized alien lures random men into her van, ferries them to a nearby location, and seduces them, only to leave them suspended in a kind of otherworldly amniotic fluid until they resemble dehydrated, soulless husks. Much of what was written in screenplay form, including pages of dialogue, became unusable when Glazer experienced a breakthrough moment that would alter the entire direction of the production. After casting Scarlett Johansson as the predatory alien and costuming her in femme fatale regalia, including cheap wig, heavy lipstick and fur coat, Glazer adopted the radical technique.
Johansson is strong in a stand out role, starting out icy and methodical, but slowly giving Laura (her earth name) a sense of curiosity about the creatures she’s murdering. She’s especially intrigued when she meets a disfigured young man; at first she doesn’t even notice — all these creatures look odd — but then her alien mind starts churning and questions are raised.
In the few scenes in which she has dialogue, Johansson uses a posh, convincing British accent the alien adopted to increase her attractiveness to the working-class Scottish men she lures into her van. The alien is smooth as she asks for directions and whether the men live alone. Johansson’s creature is just a pawn in a larger game, drawing sympathetic vibes from viewers. Glazer’s arresting visuals highlight Johansson’s beauty and open demeanor deliberately holding our attention.
“Under the Skin” always is moving, but slowly, thoughtfully, positioning both Glazer’s camera and the alien as observers. Over-the-shoulder shots follow the alien through a crowded mall, the normalcy of which highlights her otherworldliness. As the alien tools through rainy streets seeking prey, the camera work inside the van is so fluid it puts you in the passenger seat.
The film challenges the idea of sexuality as the ultimate female power; at the same time it provides plentiful Johansson nude shots as the alien shows more emotional colors than the job of seduction requires.
The film’s greater message is open to interpretation as Glazer opens the story’s key developments to analysis. Yet the takeaways still are clear: Johansson can thrive under the right circumstances, and Glazer ranks among today’s most exciting filmmakers. “Under the Skin” is the kind of movie people will be talking about, and dissecting and puzzling over.
The film is currently showing in select theatres.
By: Alex Reynolds